This week on «Film Friday» I am celebrating Warren Beatty's 80th birthday, which is next Thursday, by telling you a little bit about the film that made him a star. Incidentally, 2017 also marks the 50th anniversary of this film's original release.
Directed by Arthur Penn, Bonnie and Clyde (1967) begins in the middle of the Depression with a meeting between Clyde Barrow (Warren Beatty) and Bonnie Parker (Faye Dunaway), whose car he tries to steal. Bonnie, who is bored by her job as a waitress, is deeply intrigued by Clyde and decides to take up with him by becoming his partner in crime. At first, the duo's amateur efforts are not very lucrative, but their crime spree shifts into high gear once they partner up with a dim-witted gas station attendant named C.W. Moss (Michael J. Pollard), Clyde's older brother Buck (Gene Hackman) and his shrill wife Blanche (Estelle Parsons), a preacher's daughter.
|Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty as Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow.|
Soon, Bonnie and Clyde turn from pulling small-time heists to robbing banks, in a series of exploits that become increasingly violent. When C.W. botches a bank robbery by parallel parking the getaway car and delaying their escape, Clyde shoots the manager after he jumps onto the vehicle. The gang is immediately pursued by law enforcement, including Texas Ranger Frank Hamer (Denver Pyle), whom they capture and humiliate before setting him free.
Later, a raid catches the gang off guard, mortally wounding Buck with a gruesome shot to his head and injuring Blanche. Bonnie, Clyde and C.W. manage to escape, but a sightless Blanche is taken into police custody. With her help, Hamer locates the remainder of the gang hiding at the house of C.W.'s father, Ivan Moss (Dub Taylor), who believes Bonnie and Clyde have corrupted his son. Mr. Moss secretly strikes a bargain with Hamer: in exchange for leniency for C.W., he helps the police set a trap for Bonnie and Clyde. When the couple stop on the side of the road to supposedly help Mr. Moss fix a flat tire, the police in the bushes open fire and riddle them with bullets. Hamer and his posse then come out of hiding, looking pensively at the couple's bodies.
Bonnie Parker: I'm Miss Bonnie Parker and this is Mr. Clyde Barrow. We rob banks.
While working together for Esquire magazine in 1963, Robert Benton and David Newman came across John Toland's The Dillinger Days, an account of one of the most iconic outlaws of the Great Depression, John Dillinger. In its footnotes, the book touched on the escapades of Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow, whom Benton had heard about as a child growing up in Texas.
Barrow entered a life of crime at the age of 16, cracking safes, robbing stores and stealing cars. In early 1930, he met Parker at a friend's house and the two were instantly smitten with each other. Out of love for Barrow, Parker became his partner in crime and remained a loyal companion to him as they raided the central United States with their gang, in a spree of bank robberies and murders. On the morning of May 23, 1934, the couple was ambushed and killed by a posse of four officers outside a rural town in Louisiana. The shooting was incredibly violent, as the lawmen emptied all of their arms at the car, in a total of about 130 rounds of gunfire. Apparently, the firing was so loud that the posse suffered temporary deafness all afternoon.
|The real Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow c. 1932.|
Fascinated by the story of Bonnie and Clyde, Benton and Newman began writing a script based on the legendary couple. Between August and November 1963, inspired by the work of French New Wave directors François Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard, the duo produced a 75-page treatment, marked by graphic violence and straightforwardness in its handling of sexuality. For instance, Benton and Newman originally wrote Clyde as bisexual and featured a controversial sequence in which he and Bonnie engaged in a three-way sexual relationship with their male getaway driver, C.W. Moss. «The French Wave allowed us to write with a more complex morality, more ambiguous characters, more sophisticated relationships», Benton said.
In early 1964, Benton and Newman sent their treatment to Truffaut, their first choice to direct a possible screen adaptation of the story. He was interested, but eventually turned the project down to make Fahrenheit 451 (1966). At Truffaut's suggestion, the writers then approached Godard, who refused the offer because of his mistrust of Hollywood.
Meanwhile, Warren Beatty had lunch with Truffaut in Paris, in an effort to convince the director to choose him over Oskar Werner to play the male lead opposite Julie Christie in Fahrenheit 451. Truffaut refused to do so, but he did recommend Bonnie and Clyde as a vehicle for Beatty, whom he apparently disliked. «Truffaut was utterly bored by me,» the actor later recalled. «I think he did not like me for some reason of principle.»
Returning to Hollywood, Beatty contacted Benton and Newman to express his interest in both producing and starring in Bonnie and Clyde, which had yet to be picked up by a studio. In November 1965, he optioned the script for $7,500, paying the writers a fee of $75,000. «I wanted to do it,» Beatty later said, «because it was a truly American subject, partly because it had a genuine social-economic background, but mainly in the end because it showed interesting people.» Once he signed on as star and producer, Beatty made a deal with Warner Bros. to finance the film. Initially, Jack L. Warner was hostile towards the project, considering its subject matter a throwback to the studio's early gangster films. Warner only agreed to back the production after Beatty offered to make it for a small salary and 40 percent of the gross.
|Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty in Bonnie and Clyde.|
Upon its premiere on August 13, 1967, Bonnie and Clyde caused a major wave of controversy for its supposed glorification of murderers and for its level of graphic violence, which was unprecedented at the time. Bosley Crowther of The New York Times was so appalled that he began campaigning against the increasing brutality of American films. Dave Kaufman of Variety criticized the film for uneven direction and for portraying Bonnie and Clyde as «bumbling fools.» Joe Morgenstern of Newsweek initially panned the film as a «squalid shoot-'em-up for the moron trade», but later praised it after seeing it a second time and noticing the enthusiastic audience. Roger Ebert also gave Bonnie and Clyde a largely positive review, called it «a milestone in the history of American movies, a work of truth and brilliance.» It performed well at the box office, and by the year's end had grossed $23,000,000 in US theatrical rentals, becoming the studio's second highest-grossing film of all time, right behind My Fair Lady (1964).
At the 40th Academy Awards ceremony, Bonnie and Clyde won Oscars for Best Supporting Actress (Estelle Parsons) and Best Cinematography, receiving additional nominations for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor (Beatty), Best Actress (Faye Dunaway), Best Supporting Actor (Gene Hackman and Michael J. Pollard) and Best Costume Design.
Star: How Warren Beatty Seduced America by Peter Biskind (Simon & Schuster, 2010)
Warren Beatty: A Private Man by Suzanne Finstad (Three Rivers Press, 2005)